Nick Grant

DESIGN TECHNOLOGIST

My Half-Hearted Attempt at Technological Liberation

WRITING

When you open Instagram or WhatsApp, you might have noticed the “from Facebook” tag on the bottom of your screen. The all-encompassing tech giant dominates our daily interactions with our smartphones, whether we’re are posting vacation pictures or exchanging ideas in workspace group chats. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I check my notifications every day.

While I admire my ability to connect with my friends and family, the controversial social media network is one of our greatest threats to American democracy on several levels. Throughout my academic career, I’ve researched and advocated for the deletion of social media. Yet I cannot eliminate my online presence no matter how hard I try.

Launched in 2004, Facebook gained traction during my awkward middle school years. The majority of students created accounts on the iconic blue website, while I observed skeptically from the sidelines. As an introvert, I desired neither the constant updates nor the competition for likes. Why should I poke my friend online when we eat lunch in the same spot every day?

In high school, everybody downloaded Instagram. My friends urged me to join, but I pulled away from the polished photos and heart icons. I valued my special moments and preached about how life should not be experienced through a screen. Even then I wanted to protect my data privacy, a fundamental human right.

My natural interest in the ethics of network technologies led me to study political science, journalism, and mass communication in Washington, DC. When Mark Zuckerberg stood trial for the Cambridge Analytics leak of 87 million Facebook profiles during my junior year, the revelation did not surprise me. Rather, I was shocked by how little my colleagues cared.

Eventually, I focused on intelligence studies and media regulation during my study abroad at King’s College London. Ironically, when I learned the most about the dangers of data trafficking by large companies, I finally created my first account. My friends and family were thrilled to follow my IG handle @nickety_nick.

I joined Instagram due to my overwhelming desire to fit in and find a sense of belonging while far from home. Furthermore, I strived to stay connected with my international friends from nearly every continent. Of course, I also needed to download WhatsApp afterwards. The cross-platform messaging application is more popular in Europe than regular text messaging.

During my senior year of college, I installed Facebook. Before I left the capital city, I grew fearful of losing touch with the people I shared some of my most valuable memories with. Additionally, I wanted to connect with my graduate school acceptance pool, be invited to Facebook Events, and engage in the convenient marketplaces. I could no longer stand my lack of the vampire ducking squid. If I was already on Instagram and WhatsApp, why not one more?

Since then, I’ve struggled with my hypocrisy. For my undergraduate thesis, I wrote about how Facebook is a threat to American democracy. As greater advertisement revenue floods the tech giants due to the paradigm shift, local newspapers are fighting to survive.

Local news deserts are areas in which citizens no longer have access to a local newspaper. They’re vital to American democracy because citizens are more likely to be civically engaged when they follow local public affairs. Serving an important watchdog function, journalism prevents political corruption from flourishing, increases the voting rates of citizens, and leads to a greater attachment to one’s community.

Local news deserts, however, are increasing at an alarming rate. According to The Expanding News Desert by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism that tracked local newspapers in every state, about 20 percent of metro and community newspapers in the United States have gone out of business or merged since 2004. Hundreds more have scaled back coverage to the point in which they’re referred to as “ghost newspapers.”

From 2006 to 2017, the Pew Research Center found that news media ad revenue plunged by $30 billion. Meanwhile, Facebook’s advertising revenue reached $69 billion in 2019 and continues to grow remarkably. As a result, tens of thousands of local newspaper reporters have endured layoffs.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m a huge proponent of the #DeleteFacebook campaign. The recent scandals surrounding the tech giant have led to a broad range of celebrities dramatically announcing the deletion of their accounts, from Will Farrell to Elon Musk. As a response to Facebook’s mishandling of misinformation and hate speech, large companies have recently paused their advertising on all social media. They include Starbucks, Diageo, Honda America, and Patagonia.

While being off the grid may now be trendy, I still remain active. Even if I deleted Facebook, I know that I don’t have the resolve to remove my other platforms.

At the end of the day, I enjoy seeing updates from the people I care about. One of my best friends adopted a Corgi named Cheddar. I enjoy sharing posts, tagging colleagues, and remaining engaged. Most significantly, I enjoy cultivating my social media identity. I’m fully plugged into the engrossing stream of content. If I delete my accounts, does a part of me evaporate as well?

I’m currently enrolled in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. In the engineering program, I further my knowledge of data privacy and the dangers of technological advancements. My thesis may very well be another critique on the consequences of social media.

Even though I’ve deactivated my accounts from time to time, I always return for more. My greatest mistake is underestimating the personal attachment we have to our connections. Over these past few years, I realized that social media will never be eliminated. The permanent removal of my accounts will not revive local journalism. As long as we’re more mindful of the company’s ethics, however, I am hopeful that progress will ensue.

Turn off your data sharing on WhatsApp. Monitor “Your Activity” on Instagram to see how much time you spend scrolling. Only enter the Facebook website, the application is less protective of user privacy. If we educate ourselves on how to use these platforms without ceding all our power and data to them, we can actually use them for what we need them for and not merely be used by them.

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